A guide to why we do anything

Before we begin to create better things in our lives, we first must understand why we’re doing (or not doing) things in the first place.

Everything we do or want is because we believe it will make us feel a certain way.

Our actions come from trying to get or trying to avoid a feeling.  

Our feelings drive our actions:

We do everyday things either because we believe we will feel better upon doing them, or to avoid feeling worse:

We follow personal hygiene so we look and feel better, and to also avoid social embarrassment or nervousness at the dentist.  We go to work, pay the bills, and obey the law because we feel a degree of personal responsible satisfaction, mixed with fear of consequences.

We do things that we know aren’t the best for us, in order to avoid feelings that we don’t like:

We get wasted/ zone out on TV/ overeat/ do drugs/ cause drama/ shop for fun, so we don’t have to face what we really feel. We distract ourselves from our present uncomfortable feelings, and thus temporarily feel better in the moment.

We buy things and strive to look a certain way if we believe it will make us happier:

We work hard and go into debt to acquire things.  We spend countless hours looking at beautiful things and people and scheming how we can get more of that.

We obsess and cling to objects, people, and thoughts even though we’re not really happy, because we think the alternative will feel worse:

We stay in a dysfunctional relationship because it’s more familiar than being single, spend all our money on a fancy item because we think it’s worth the admiration we receive, and will refuse to admit being wrong for years because it’s less painful than the vulnerability of apologizing.

We resist making personal improvements, in the name of comfort and familiarity:

We find it easier to feel unhealthy instead of risk feeling the discomfort of going to the gym or improving our diet.  We’d rather fight with our partner, because the annoyance of arguing is more familiar than having to change our selfish habits.

We don’t put ourselves out there and pursue our goals because we’re afraid the challenges will make us feel worse than we do now:

We find it easier to play it safe and never know what could’ve happened, rather than taking as risk and feeling uncomfortable in the name of our dreams.

We often make big decisions based on how we think we will feel:

If we believe we will feel better if we get married or divorced, have children, go back to school, change jobs, change religions, cheat, get plastic surgery, relocate, get into criminal activity… we will try it!

We do rash, stupid, and regretful things because we feel a certain way in the moment:

As a teen, we drove over the speed limit with a car full of people because we wanted to feel admiration.  As an adult we exaggerate and lie for the same reason.  Or our words and actions hurt those we love because we’re feeling unworthy.

The most hurtful things are done out of the hopes of feeling better:

The bomber with thoughts of lavish approval or heavenly rewards, starting a war in hopes of winning, murdering for vengeance, lying to the masses for approval, rape, stealing, etc….

This is why the world is crazy!  Because it’s full of people who believe that they will find a better feeling in stuff outside of themselves.  That includes the worst and best of humanity, as well as you and I.


There is nothing wrong with pursuing something that brings pleasure, within moral reason.  The point of this isn’t to judge ourselves and others by saying that spending money lavishly is always bad, or that you should never have a drink to feel better.  We’re human and we want to have fun and enjoy life!

This is just to show us that everything we do is driven by a feeling.

There is a whole spectrum of emotions, and we are all trying — consciously or unconsciously — to move upwards.  If you do an image search for ’emotional scale’, many different types come up that will help us better understand our range of feelings.  Here’s one that I created based on several existing charts:

We are all trying to move up the scale.  Step by step.  We are all trying to cope to the best of our ability in the present moment.

And often times our momentary best isn’t the most positive.   Sometimes the best we can manage in the moment is saying something hurtful, or getting drunk, or doing absolutely nothing at all.

Everything regretful in humanity comes from some aggravated soul who thinks that doing that thing will make them feel a smidgen better than they currently do.  The desire to feel better — even moving from ‘anguished despair’ to ‘immense anger’ can feel better — drives everything humans do.

This all may sound like common sense, but while we may know it intellectually, it’s a whole different experience to practice witnessing it in action.  When we see that things are done because we believe it will bring a better feeling, it actually helps us make better sense of the world.

Ah-ha, the times that I did the things I am most ashamed of, are times where I was acting out out of feeling insignificant.  When I was spreading rumors about others, I was insecure, so blaming others made me feel angry, which felt better in the moment.

It doesn’t make our actions right, it just helps us make some sense of the motives behind it.  This isn’t about making excuses for our behavior, it’s about understanding our behavior.   It is only when we understand our actions, that we can begin to make changes.

It helps us to see ourselves.  Why do we get crazy?  Why do we hold ourselves back, create drama, doubt ourselves, sustain bad habits, try to control people and situations, and do things we know aren’t good for us in the long run?

Because in the moment it feels easier and slightly better than any other option.

This is why we struggle if we just try to change our behavior without changing the emotions behind it.  Although it may work for a period of time, if it doesn’t feel good emotionally, we simply no longer want to keep it up.

Just being able to take a step back and see why we act the way we do can really help us understand ourselves better.


All emotions are beautiful and important, and valuable when they are properly felt and processed healthfully.  It’s when we’re out of touch, or too absorbed in them that they begin to hinder us.

As a social species, we are so entangled in emotion.

We speak as though our feelings are the masters, and we are puppets.

“She made me angry, so I did that.”  “It was a fit of passion, I couldn’t control myself”.  “What else was I supposed to do, I was jealous!” “I was scared, so of course I didn’t try.”

And as a result, we’re intelligent creatures with perfectly capable brains, running around like we have no minds to control us!

And often this is the most frustrating thing: we know we “know better”, but then “can’t help the way we act”.  We want to change… we really want to change.  But for some reason, it’s not happening easily.

When we feel like we have no rule over ourselves, we get nutty.  We start to blame others.  We try to control the uncontrollable.  And life becomes a mess.



So now the question is:

If we are taking (or not taking) action because of an emotion, how do we stop being so ruled by how we feel?  

How do we change how we feel in the moment so that we can cope better, behave smarter, do more, and create lasting change?

That is what I am going to teach here.

Taking the time to understand why we do what we do, is the first step.

3 thoughts on “A guide to why we do anything

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